February 4, 2007

Is Music Art? (Part Three)

Sam made a comment on Part Two:
"I think you’d have been hard pressed in 1967 to find someone to admit they
didn’t think Sgt Pepper was a work of art. Even in 2007, I think a lot
of people would say that that album is art."

This brings up another aspect of the “problem” I’ve set up for myself. My last post intentionally focused on so-called “classical/art music” and its discontents, how its self-proclaimed artistic value has been undermined by its parochial narrow-mindedness and how a shameful cowardice towards its own historical trajectory has resulted in the culling the repertoire down to a handful of moldy “masterpieces” devoid of context and meaning. Or something like that.

On the other hand, “Pop music” is arguably the only music that has any really meaningful relationship to its audience, where aesthetic risks are taken and applauded, and where modernist techniques have found a welcoming environment. Understand that I mean “pop music” in the broadest sense possible: that is, everything else that is not “classical/art music,” from the The Beatles to Anthony Braxton. So, the problem (the dialectic as it were) is that the music that proudly proclaims itself to be art is often actually not art, and music that is fundamentally commercial “pop music” is actually (sometimes) genuine, authentic, and powerful art. Further, so-called “classical/art music” has itself devolved into “pop music” in the most perjorative and cynical sense in that “saleability” is the paramount justification for its programming and for the deliberate exclusion of modernism from the repertoire. Classical music desperately wants to be liked, to sell tickets and records and not offend any potential customers. It’s as conservative and risk-averse an industry as any blue-chip corporation. Yet so-called “classical music” realm holds itself out as the purveyor and ultimate arbiter of what is and is not art-music and certifiable high culture and sets the standards by which all of the musical arts are to be measured. It’s not only phony and hypocritical (and that would be OK if it was only just show-biz), but, because of its hegemonic aesthetic weight, it’s also deeply destructive to our cultural psyche in that it serves an oppressive, regressive, and authoritarian ideology. The mindless worship of Beethoven – stripped of his original context of Enlightenment ideals – is ahistorical, anti-intellectual, and the handmaiden of fascism.

Therefore, under the prevailing ideology, “pop music" is – and can only be – incidentally (or accidentally) art. “Pop music” is primarily a commercial enterprise and always only secondarily about creativity and artistic expression. This causes all kinds of aesthetic problems. Let’s take the example of Anthony Braxton. In my estimation, Braxton is one of the world’s greatest and most important living composers and his music is of the highest artistic importance. But, from the perspective of the “classical/art music” world, his music, rooted as it is in the African-American vernacular and “jazz,” can therefore always and only be considered “pop music," and thus not worthy of serious attention. (Not to mention that Braxton’s music is modernist, dissonant, weird, and unmarketable). Thus, he has been eternally marginalized to toil in the “jazz” trenches. It matters little what I and a few others might think, or that he’s won a McArthur Grant, or is a full blown academic at Wesleyan University; Braxton’s position in the culture does not correspond with the High Culture approbation one should expect of such an extraordinary artistic achievement. The truth is, Braxton is virtually invisible to the culture at large. But, make no mistake, just because his music is not particularly popular has nothing to do with the fact that it’s still considered “pop” music." This exclusion is not some sort of accident - it is deliberate and ideological.

And this ideology is dangerous not just because it is racist. I use Braxton as an example because he, more than anyone else I can think of, has demonstrated not only a mastery of the “jazz” idiom that binds him so inextricably to the “pop” realm, but has also demonstrated a mastery of fully notated, complex composition, every bit as “serious” as any “classical” composer. Yet his music will always only be found in the “jazz” bins no matter how un-jazzlike it is. His notated music should be recorded by Deutsche Grammophone and performed at Symphony Hall before large and grateful audiences, but it is, alas, merely “pop” music that is only also incidentally art.

And then there’s The Beatles, the accidental artists.

The Beatles are the ultimate example of truly popular “pop” music that is only also accidentally (sometimes) “art.” The Beatles are the epitome of pop music: everybody loves The Beatles. Sgt Pepper is the one rock record that the musicians, the audience, the musicologists, and Leonard Bernstein could all agree upon as being a modern masterpiece – a certified, full-blown “work of art.” But maybe not so much all those other records - particularly those vulgar early records or the painful and angst-ridden later stuff. No, only Sgt Pepper satisfies all the requirements of the sacred denotation “art.” But, truly it was only an accident, never to be repeated. Look at how Paul McCartney supplicates himself to the “classical/art music” world with his Oratorios. (See also recent “classical” gambits by Elvis Costello, Sting, and Billy Joel). None of it will make any difference to the culture at large and these gambits must always fail, regardless of their musical merits. This ideology not only overstates Sgt Pepper’s ultimate artistic worth, it also serves to further the phony divide between so-called “classical/art music” and everything else that is merely “pop.”

Sam goes on to say:

"Works of art are where you find them..."
Indeed. Finding them is the problem.

I know full well that I am engaging in a muddle-headed polemic here that likely comes across as little more than warmed over Adorno. The Culture Industry voraciously appropriates everything in its path and sells it back to us as meaningless consumer products and in the process of commodification effectively neutralizes whatever artistic power the works themselves may have once hoped to embody. Yes, but now what? Does it matter? Shall we just sit back and enjoy the showbiz entertainment spectacle and be grateful for the tidbits of genuinely affective and powerful art that can be found, from time to time, therein? Or is this cultural status quo a poisonous vehicle for regression, anti-intellectualism, and an authoritarian ideology that seeks to undo every one of beloved Beethoven’s Enlightenment ideals? And if we admit that our musical-artistic culture enshrines an imperialistic, if not outright fascist ideal, then shouldn’t we care enough to examine how this came to be and perhaps seek to restore to music its position as the ultimate humanistic, liberal, art?

Here’s what I believe (and I know it sounds ridiculous): If the world had listened to Schoenberg (rather than Stravinsky), the Second World War could have been avoided. It is no joke that Schoenberg had to flee his homeland with the rise of Hitler; his music being so quickly labeled as “degenerate” by the new regime is a clue to its artistic and sociological importance, and its power. I am, of course, overstating things, but imagine a society that embraced dissonance – that society would value diversity, pluralism, non-hierarchical organizational structures, would strive for a composed freedom. A musical culture that embraces “tradition,” “likeability,” and “functional harmony” more than anything else fosters narrow-mindedness, divisiveness, elitism, and right-wing politics. (How’s that for an unsupported and deliberately controversial assertion!)

Like I said, I know I’m being ridiculous.

So let’s put it another way. Lizzy gave me a subscription to Art In America for my birthday, and as I look through it each month, I wonder, why isn’t there a Music In America that intelligently discusses music as art, in its full historical context for an audience that cares about it? The finest music periodicals are to be found in Britain: The Grammophone, The Wire, and Mojo are well written publications, but it’s not the same. The focus is on saleability, the personalities more than the work itself, and always pushing product, no matter how outré it might occasionally be. I really admire Waxpoetics for its seriousness and high production values, but its focus is on hiphop/beat digger culture which is fascinating, but too much of a niche publication to have the cultural clout of, say, ArtForum. Where is the ArtForum for music? Is music not an art form?

I think so, but I feel that I am decidedly in the minority.

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